From the Heights to the Pits — The Best and Worst Presidents of All Time. Part I

| February 18, 2013

Watch a pack of presidential history buffs belly up to a bar and listen as they debate over their top ten best or worst presidents. While it’s safe to say that most within their top fives will dovetail, their bottom five, depending on their political leanings could cause a brawl.

According to a survey of 238 presidential scholars, historians, and political scientists, conducted by Siena College Research Institute, President George W. Bush managed to bust President Fillmore out of the bottom five and claim Millard’s mantle as the fifth worst president of the United States. But that’s not all, as of 2010, President Obama ranked fourteenth best, just behind President Clinton and President Andrew Jackson.

In fairness, it should be noted that most presidents rank within the top twenty while in office, and later move up and down by a few slots — but G.W. Bush’s shifting was particularly dramatic. The forty-third president plummeted from number 23 at the end of his presidency to number 39 just one year later. Bush did, however, earn the dubious distinction of listing high in two top-twenty categories, which were used to compile the rankings,: he was considered the eighteenth luckiest president and the nineteenth most willing to take a risk.

Twenty categories were considered by each of the respondents: background, imagination [Theodore Roosevelt’s wildlife conservationism, among various other accomplishments, helped place him in the top slot], integrity [Lincoln bested them all, while Nixon’s paucity of it places him last], intelligence [Jefferson was highest, G.W. Bush lowest], luck, willingness to take risks, avoidance of crucial mistakes [thanks to Watergate, Nixon ranked last], court appointments, domestic accomplishments, executive appointments, foreign policy accomplishments [G.W. Bush’s Iraq and Lyndon Johnson’s VietNam placed them at rock bottom], handling of U.S. economy [the squandering of Clinton’s surplus, and the Great Depression placed G.W. Bush and Hoover at the bottom respectively). Party leadership, relationship with Congress [Lyndon Johnson as a former “Master of the Senate” leads the way handily] , ability to compromise [Lincoln at the top; G.W. Bush at the bottom], ability to communicate [only Andrew Johnson was listed as worse than G.W. Bush], executive ability, leadership ability [Washington leads Lincoln at the top]. overall ability [Harding’s ineptitude wins him the worst], and present overall view.

While the top five presidents have not changed in the past thirty years, they have swapped places from time to time.

So what causes the shuffling and reshuffling? In short, the answers are new research and previously unknown facts, as well as political distancing.

Thirteen years in office, a suave and inspiring demeanor, countless political victories, as well as the end of the Great Depression and the addition of Social Security, has left President Franklin Roosevelt unchallenged for the number-one spot, while second and third places have switched between presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Jefferson.

1. Franklin D. Roosevelt is unshakable as number one based on the composite of this list, which gives equal weight to each category. That said, however, under the category called ‘your present overall view” he comes in second to Lincoln. It should also be noted that Roosevelt’s worst score shows him at sixteenth in integrity — no doubt in part to his marital infidelities.

2. Theodore Roosevelt reduced the power of big business and is responsible for the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. If you need more proof of why the big-stick wielder ranked number one in imagination, you need look no further than the Panama Canal.

3. Abraham Lincoln supported and fought for the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which legally abolished slavery, as well as the Homestead Act that awarded poor Easterners land in the western states. (It should be noted that many other less-restrictive — though less-detailed — presidential polls place Lincoln squarely on top.) [Read more about Lincoln and when the Parties turned]

4. George Washington, without whom, there may not have been a United States of America, fought for freedom against tyranny against all odds. The first president, who preferred the title of “General,” laid the groundwork for a new kind of democracy when he could have easily begun a monarchy instead.

5. Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and purchased the Louisiana Territory, which doubled the size of the United States. Not a presidential historian alive would doubt that the American Sphinx was the most intelligent of the lot: He spoke fluent Greek, Latin, and French and invented everything from a pasta maker to a “copy machine” known as the polygraph.

6. James Madison quilled most of the Constitution and defended a young nation during the War of 1812, which was commonly referred to at the time as the “Second War of Independence.”

7. James Monroe set America’s tone internationally with the Monroe Doctrine, which promoted non-interventionalism. He also acquired Florida from Spain and absorbed five more states into the Union: Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri.

8. Woodrow Wilson fought to create the League of Nations (later the United Nations) and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a supporter of labor rights and helped pass the Clayton Anti-Trust Act that allowed for boycotts, strikes, and pickets.

9. Harry Truman was a controversial figure who has risen steadily within the ranks of former presidents over the decades. His decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, which officially ended WWII, was based on statistics presented to him by Atchison that showed more U.S. troops and Japanese would die in a protracted war. It was also known that the Germans and the Soviets were developing their own bomb; Truman believed being the first country to unleash atomic warfare would actually halt other countries from doing the same. The Cold War began because of this, though it is debatable if the war could have been the end of civilization without it.

Give-‘em-Hell Harry fought for Medicare and Medicaid but lost the fight to obtuse Republican opposition. Year laters, however, when Lyndon Johnson brought Truman’s programs to fruition, the former president smiled on as LBJ signed the bills into law. Truman is also responsible for the Truman’s Fair Deal, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall plan — all of which affect U.S. polices today.

10. Dwight D. Eisenhower further fueled the Cold War by building up  America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. While he ended the conflict in Korea, he sowed the seeds (with the “Domino Effect”) that lead to the war with VietNam. Following Brown v. Board of Education, Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce the law that ended school desegregation.

Most Americans have long forgiven President Clinton for his dalliances, and even though he is listed as the third worst in integrity, he still comes in as the thirteenth best president overall.

Arguably, had it not been for the VietNam War, President Lyndon Johnson would have made the top five rather than ranking sixteenth, if for no other reasons than the Civil Right Acts of the mid-1960s, and the social programs of the Great Society, including Medicare and Medicaid. The conflict in Southeast Asia, however, is a towering “but” that will forever shadow Johnson from superstar stratum.

Based on the categories used to place the presidents, watch for President Obama’s stature to rise, baring any unforeseen scandals before the end of his term. When the poll was taken in 2010 the president ranked tenth with his ability to compromise and seventh in communication skills and was slotted as the sixth most imaginative and the eighth most intelligent.


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